I once heard about a conversation that took place between comedian, Richard Pryor, and the great entertainer, Louis Armstrong, who had the nickname “Pops”. Dropping by his dressing room, Pryor inquired of Armstrong,
“What’s happenin’’, Pops?”
to which Armstrong replied,
“White folks still in the lead.”
This illuminating response led me to ponder the relationship between my team – the Jews – and the Christians, once, a smaller organization than the Jews, but now considerably in the lead. The result of my pondering is the following:
Once upon a time, there were twelve Christians. Well, not “Once upon a time”– this isn’t The Three Bears with Christians – it’s real. There was a time when there were twelve Christians. Thirteen, if you count Jesus, who came and went, and then came back. Twelve, thirteen, maybe some girls who hung around, hardly a substantial crowd, especially for a religion. Tell your boss you’re in a religion with twelve people in it, and you’re unlikely to get the day off for one of their holidays.
Of course, if you follow religion at all, you know that Christianity grew bigger. And now, they’re huge. Not that I’m saying that’s surprising, or undeserved. Christianity’s a fine religion, with lots of inspiring things in it. People seem to like it. I say more power to them. They’re a big success and that’s great. And I mean that.
Okay, I’ll admit it. There is this tiny tinge of envy. But be fair, can you blame me? Christianity grew out of Judaism. We came first. Though it’s hard to believe today, there was actually a time when there were a lot of Jews and no Christians whatsoever. Not one. There were restricted golf courses and nobody was playing on them. Now they’re this enormous, superstar religion and, well, we’re still around, which is nice, but we’re not that big.
To be honest, it’s tough to take. The sturdy, older brother watching his quietly charismatic sibling rocket past him? You can’t help wondering, “What happened?”
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a minority religion. We’re on the map, people have heard of us. When they say “Judeo-Christian”, we’re Judeo. It’s just that once in a while, you flash on what it would be like to be the majority, and have the President – a Jewish president, because we’re the majority – come out the first night of Chanukah and light a huge menorah on the White House lawn.
There’s also a Christmas tree, but it’s small.
Maybe I’m being ungrateful. When you think about it, it’s a miracle that Jews are around at all, considering the more than occasional efforts made to wipe us out. Judaism logs in at an acceptable thirteen million worldwide, which, though not hundreds of millions, like you know who, is better than nothing. Ask the Hittites or the Ishmaelites if they’d like to have thirteen million descendants walking around, instead of nobody.
When’s the last time you took in a Canaanite movie, or picked up some Amalekite take-out? Everyone’s gone, except for us, and I’m certain, way back, the betting was very heavy in the other direction.
Still, one can’t help harkening back to the era – a short era, I’ll admit, but an era nonetheless – when there were more Jews than there were Christians. In that brief period during the B.C.’s, if your theologically proclivity leaned toward “one God that nobody can see”, Jew was the only game in town. Everyone else was sacrificing virgins and praying to cats.
Then, came the A.D.’s. Of course, back then, nobody knew they were the A.D.’s, they just thought it was more time. But they were wrong. It was more than “more time”; it was a brand new era. The A.D.’s – the first day of the A.D.’s – delivered an unusual baby brother, a brother whose inspiration would one day leave Judaism, at least popularity-wise, in the dust.
Change was in the air. There was trouble in the Holy Land, the Romans were pushing everybody around. At times like these, Jewish tradition calls for a messiah to show up and straighten things out.
There were no lack of applicants for the job. Wannabe Messiahs, invariably badly dressed, with wild eyes and crazy hair, would stand on some high place where everybody could see them, and proclaim, “I’m him!” or more loftily, “I’m Him!” (Of course, the grammatically correct version is “I’m He”, but people rarely warm to a leader who is smarter than they are. Check out the recent presidential results.)
They were fakes, every one of them. They’d draw some early heat, earning a free meal or a place to stay, possibly a complimentary pair of sandals, but sooner or later, reality did them in. They’d prophesy things, and they wouldn’t come to pass. Or some sick person would cry, “Heal me!” and they’d just look at them.
The phony messiahs choked in the clutch and it was Game Over. After that, they were just pests, forced to peddle their prophesies in the hinterlands. Or find a real job.
But then – cue the choir….
someone came along who, to this day, is seen as the genuine article. We’re told of an ability to heal with a touch, to walk on water, and make a small amount of food go a really long way. Jews, desperate for a messiah, couldn’t help but take notice. You could just sense that this fellow was different.
He got twelve followers. Not overly impressive considering the stuff he was pulling off, but Jews, even desperate ones, are a highly skeptical bunch. When you tell Jews there’s this guy out there doing miracles, the standard response is, “Go away, I’m busy.” Or, if they’re funny, “Let him try selling flannel in the desert. Now that would be a miracle.”
Of course, you can’t blame the early Jews for not taking a religion with twelve people in it seriously. For a religion, twelve is a precariously puny number. The Romans sweep through in a grumpy mood – that’s all she wrote. A bad flu season – they’re gone.
And then, there’s the natural attrition. Followers get jobs out of town, they start families and they can’t make the meetings, another messiah shows up giving away camels…this new group was hanging by a thread. Adopting a desert metaphor, when you’re in a twelve-person religion, your membership card’s written in sand. Another thing that could have wiped them out. Twelve followers on a retreat in the desert – a big sandstorm kicks up – Goodbye, Christians.
The situation was dire for the fledgling religion; it was grow or go. And “growing” wouldn’t be easy. The new guys had to convince the Jews – who’d been around the “messiah” block a time or two – to abandon their longstanding beliefs and throw in with twelve zealots, proclaiming that theirs is the one true way.
One other little drawback: If the Romans caught you being a follower, they nailed you to a cross and they didn’t let you down until you were dead, a situation likely to cause Jews asked, “Would you like to join us?” to respond, “I think we’ll pass.”
I imagine – and since I wasn’t there, imagination’s all I can go on – that there had to have been a meeting about the “increasing the membership” problem, where they decided to create a committee to deal with recruitment. A marketing committee, formed to devise appealing strategies for attracting Jews to their newfound faith.
Later, they’d present their proposals to the full assemblage, but to hammer out the basics, and not get bogged down, I see a smaller group tackling the task. Maybe two people, both once Jews, but now, Christians.
The assignment went to Matthew (formerly Murray) and Simon (formerly Sol).
If this meeting had been recorded, we’d have an enduring chronicle of the conversation that saved Christianity from extinction and paved the way for the great success it enjoys today. Since it wasn’t recorded, I have had to make it up.
The minutes of that imagined game-changing meeting: Tomorrow.
There's an online magazine I write for called Television Quarterly. In this issue, I've written a review of Steve Martin's memoir, Born Standing Up. If you haven't had quite enough of me, you can find the magazine at tvquarterly.com.